What do you do to break a creative block?

I’ve been wanting to get back to blogging for a while now. Unfortunately a combination of graduate student life and not wanting to spend even more time than I already do in front of a computer has made me put that off. At the same time, I’ve been having some bursts of activity on Quora. I think Quora is an interesting site and serves a a good purpose, but I’m not very happy about its Walled Garden policies and I would like the information I put in to be more generally available (at least the stuff that doesn’t involve the more obscure points of Tolkien’s legendarium). So for today at least I’m going to report an answer I wrote up while i was waiting for my experiments to finish.

The post asked about overcoming creative block, in particular writer’s block. The poster said that time was sometimes, but not always a factor and that s/he had been writing quite prolifically before. (The previous sentence made me realize that English desperately needs a gender-neutral third-person pronoun that isn’t ‘it’.) Given my blogging predicament, I avoid this uncannily relevant. Anyways, without further ado:


Personally I’ve found that what helps is a combination of three things: good routine, new experiences and boredom.

First, routine.  If you’re having trouble getting time to write, or trouble sitting down to write even when you have time, a strict routine can definitely help. As Somerset Maugham supposedly said : “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Find a quiet space, free of people and distractions, grab some coffee (or tea, or just water), turn off the Internet and your phone and just write. Write anything. It doesn’t have to be in your preferred genre or what you’re trying to write. It can be an essay, a journal entry, a letter to friend (or an enemy). The point is just to get into the habit of writing. Once you’re comfortable with sitting down for some time each day and just writing something you can move on to what you actually want to write.

Second, experiences. If you’re going to be a serious writer then it helps to have things to write about. While it’s definitely possible to create interesting by isolating yourself in a cabin in the woods (see Walden by Henry David Thoreau), I think it’s a safer bet (and far more interesting) to gather lots of interesting experiences and ideas and weave them together in interesting ways. Travel new places and keep your eyes, do things you thought you’d never do, talk to people you normally don’t interact with, eat foods that look strange and unfamiliar, look up random topics on Wikipedia, explore a new subject each month. The more ideas you have in your head, the easier it will be to have things to recombine and use as a basis for interesting writing.

Third, boredom. As a complement to the above, as you’re gathering experiences you need to have the time and energy to put them together. Spend a Saturday on the couch (or the hammock if you have one) with the TV off and without any people around. Stand in the checkout line and just stand. Get bored sometimes, don’t rush the mindless things like doing the dishes and vacuuming. You need to put interesting things in your head but you also have to give yourself the chance to let them interact and recombine. This part is often hard to do because you feel like you should be doing something productive, but I believe this stage of just letting ideas percolate and react is crucial to any creative activity.

Finally, to make the most of the above: carry a notebook and pen always. It doesn’t have to be a fancy Moleskine or anything of the sort. It just needs to be something where you can record interesting experiences and ideas and look back on them later.

Good luck and good writing.

Sunday Selection 2012-09-16

Around the Web

There is something magical about Firefox OS

As much as I love my Android phone and think that Windows phone UI is pretty interesting I’m starting to wonder if the phone software ecosystems aren’t starting to get a bit stale. Especially with the iPhone 5 release it looks like we’re getting to the point where manufacturers only make small incremental updates to their systems instead of really improving. I’m hoping Firefox OS for mobile devices will shake things up in much the same way that Firefox did for the desktop

The Joy of Quiet

I love the Internet. I love being connected. I love being able to talk to my parents across the world for virtually nothing every day. I love being able to exchange snarky quips with friends I haven’t seen in years ( and writing that sentence made me feel really old). But I sometimes I can’t help wonder if it isn’t all getting just a bit out of hand. I’m not at the point where I’m willing to pay money to get disconnected (and I went without Internet for a week in the summer with no withdrawal symptoms). But I am starting to tone things down a bit, watching less TV, unsubscribing from RSS feeds and trying to spend some time each day reading good old dead tree books and just hearing myself think.

Why I write: George Orwell’s Four Motives for Creation

The flip side of consumption is creation. Part of the reason I want to tone down my connectivity is so that I can consume less and create more. George Orwell has a somewhat unusual take on the reasons behind creativity: it’s less Zen and passion and more a combination of ego, pride and simple pragmatism. It’s useful to realize that not all creative types are driven by some diving inspiration by way of a capricious muse. Some people just want to be heard.

Web services

Findings

The Internet is a great medium for sharing, even better than a soapbox in a park or a podium at a forum. Findings in an interesting service for sharing text either from your Kindle or from the Web. They also place emphasis on proper attribution. I don’t know how they plan on making money but it’s well put-designed and I hope they add support for sharing from other reading platforms like Instapaper and Readmill.

April plans

Today is the 1st of April. It’s time for the internet to get out of control with craziness and ridiculous April’s Fools Day. Today was also registration day at college, meaning that all of us 20-something year-olds had to get up at 7 in the morning (known as the crack of dawn to most of us) and schedule next semesters dreary existence. It’s also the start of a new month and hopefully the start of good weather that actually lasts. Since it’s a new month, I decided it would be a good time to try doing things a little bit different. I suppose you could think of them as 30-day trials in some ways, but most of them are minor enough that I don’t think I need to use the ‘trial’ concept on them. In no particular order, here goes:

Writing daily: quantity over quality

I already write a fair amount, mostly in the form of blog posts and email. But I’m also prone to slacking off terribly. I’ve gone for a week at a time without writing anything substantial. Writing isn’t a day job for me, but it is something I enjoy, something I value and something I want to improve on. So I’m going to try a bit every day.

I’ve thought about doing this at various points in the past, but I’ve always agonized about the process. I would like to sit down at any computer and just write for a few minutes. But I could never decide how exactly to do it without having writing scattered all over the place. And I always knew in the back of my head that I needed to start down for an hour or so to actually write something of value.

I’ve always been a fan of quality over quantity, but for once I’m going to give it a rest. I’m going to write everyday in the hopes that the much increased throughput will produce a greater number of good works in the long run and it will also develop my writing skills (especially in terms of avoiding writer’s block and being able to switch into writing mode at the drop of a hat). When I have an extended period of time (an hour at least) I’ll write techie articles for this blog and when I have shorter snippets I’ll just dump them into documents on Google Docs.

Reading: everywhere, anytime

While I like to write, I like to read too. Unfortunately I don’t often have the time to sit down and read for a few hours at a time. On the other hand I have short bursts of time every now and then (5-10 minutes) and instead of just sitting right or looking at funny videos of cats, I want to spend that time reading. I’ve already read one book on my iPod Touch using little snippets of time here and there. Though I don’t think I’ll want to do that with all forms of literature, I can certainly do it for short pieces. I’m considering getting the Instapaper Pro app (which lets you save stuff you want to read) and offers some features like text extraction and font customization that I think will come in pretty handy.

Using both brain hemispheres

I’m going to be graduating in just over a year with two degrees: computer engineering. So yes, my left brain is going to be very well exercised. But I want my right brain to get some training too. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to pick up a studio art major, but I like what I have know.

In order to exercise my right hemisphere I’ve taken to looking at art and design. I don’t really study anything formally (though I among going to Italy over summer to study Renaissance Art) but I do observe and absorb. In particular I’ve been looking at data presentation and web design. I plan on spending some time building “blogazine“-like content on my website, probably centered about poetry and stories I’ve written before. I might even dabble in some hand-drawing (which I haven’t seriously done in years). Of course everything I do will be free for everyone to see and reuse.

Measuring my time usage

I often have days where I feel like I did a lot and didn’t really waste time, but didn’t quite accomplish much. I tried to apply the principle of “what you measure improves” by tracing all my time usage for a day. It turned out to be rather clumsy because I wanted a system where I could write things quickly and still get fairly good analytics on how I spent my time. Unfortunately paper is great for recording, but it sucks for analytics and most time tracking solutions I found were too heavy and expensive.

A few days ago I stumbled across a new webapp called Freckle which seems to hit the sweet spot between features and usability. All you do is enter a time (or use their timer bookmarklet), what project it was for and a bunch of tags and it gives you a set of fairly decent analytics. You have to pay for it and I just started a free month long trial. If I find that it actually works well, that I use it and that I’m getting more stuff done, then it’s a keeper and I’ll gladly fork over the $12 a month and wish them well.

Agile daily productivity

The agile development methodology eschews large complicated schedules and project plans in favor of smaller chunks of work, quicker feedback and review and greater flexibility. I’ve been an applying a similar system to my own daily workloads and it seems to be working, but I’ll be enforcing it better. Being a college student it makes absolutely no sense for me to have long schedules because every day brings new challenges (homework, tests, projects, random coffee drinking sessions) and any long-term plan would be shattered in a day. Instead I’m using a dual system: due dates to make sure I’m on track with my long term goals and shorter lists of daily and weekly tasks that need to be done. I’ll try to set aside large blocks of time for things like homework sets and fill in shorter blocks with reading and writing. I’m also consider doing weekly reviews but I’m not sure how much of a value that will provide to me right now.


All that probably seems like a lot and taken individually it is. But I’m going to try to collapse/multiplex them into a congruent workflow where I schedule with flexibility in mind. Ideally, I’ll spending large blocks of time on homework, programming and content creation with shorter blocks on light reading, practice writing and random errands that pop up now and again.

In 30 days my free trial of Freckle will run out and that’s also when I’ll sit down, take a deep breath and see if all this actually worked or not. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try to see what it failed and see if I can fix it. Even if it didn’t work, I’m sure there will be places to tweak and improve. And though I’m tired from having written this (and from everything else I’ve done and need to) I feel pretty excited for this month.

On Essays

I’ve been thinking about essays on and off for the past few days. It all started when I was in the process of updating my static HTML website that I call Basu:shr. I have a section called essays which is currently populated mostly with papers that I wrote for various courses at college. Looking over some of my older work I realized that I didn’t really write longer pieces anymore. This blog is my primary writing activity at the moment and most of my posts are in the 700 to 1000 word range. I’m perfectly happy writing short articles because I’ve always admired brevity and conciseness (which is why I like Twitter as well). But at the same time, I’m slightly worried that I might be losing the ability of writing longer, more detailed pieces.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

As I’ve pondered before, life is short and it takes a fair amount of dedicated effort and time to come up with something beautiful and useful. With the rise of the Internet and instantaneous communications, we’re becoming a culture that is very much used to continuous streams of small information packets. The essay is becoming a holdover from the old days when having long periods of times to do nothing but sit and read was common. However, there are a number of really good essayists alive today, and a lot of them are on the Internet. There’s Paul Graham, whose essays are practically the stuff of legend for programmers. There is also Steve Yegge who seems to have retired, but left behind a fairly large collection of essay-length material (including an article on why you should write a blog). Outside the Internet there is Warren Buffet who has written long detailed letters to shareholders for the last 32 years each of which is an education in and of itself (and I can’t help but wonder how many shareholders actually read through them all).

I don’t think I’m making a mistake when I say that the essay is still alive and well today, albeit in somewhat modified forms. But the fact remains that putting out something of such length and depth takes up a lot of time and energy (not to mention the countless hours that go into accumulating the knowledge and organizing the thoughts that must flow into such a work). In many ways, writing an essay is similar to a software project. There is planning and preparation that must happen upfront, but nothing is really for certain until you sit down and start writing. Writing a good essay that other people will want to read and tell their friends about is no easier than writing good software that others will want to use.

Blog meet Essay

The blog and the essay are fundamentally different things. A blog is a magazine compared to an essay’s book. The blog as a format is great for some things: without easy blogging I probably wouldn’t be writing at all. But the rise of blogs (and accompanying software) has left the long form essay in the dark. You could simply write long articles and put them on your blog like Steve Yegge. But reverse chronological ordering really isn’t the best format for a collection of essays. For small numbers, a simple list of titles, maybe with a blurb is probably the best. Once you get to a larger number (Paul Graham for example), a simple list doesn’t cut it any more.

There is also the actual writing experience. Whenever you write a longer piece over the course of many days, you start to go back and visit the old parts. Part of it is for editing, but you also want to read what you’ve read before so that you know you’re keeping your essay coherent. Blog software doesn’t easily let you do this. I know WordPress stores revisions, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy, upfront way to see diffs of different versions against each other. I suppose a wiki could be better as an essay platform. Dokuwiki has excellent visual diff function and Writeboard also lets you compare versions.

Perhaps we do need some sort of specialized software for writing essays. Something that puts drafting editing at the center as opposed to at the edges. Personally I’ve been using Emacs with Git to get some of the same result, but I would really like to see a webapp that can do something like that. After all, there isn’t much use in writing an essay if no one is going to read it (and how better to get people to read it than to put it out on the Internet).

I, Essayist

Even though there may be no quick-and-easy publishing solution like WordPress for essays, writing an essay is far less dependent on tech tools than most other things today. Like I said before, Emacs and Git do a fairly good job together. I would like to be able to put all my drafts online with some sort of commenting system so that people can see the evolution of my essays, but I’ll settle for just being able to show a final product.

Separate from showing the essay is the mental exercise of actually sitting down and writing the essay (and then revising and editing). That’s something that I’ll have to get back into the habit of doing and will probably take time. Subject matter is also an issue, but a good starting point would be to simply expand on the themes that I cover in this blog, while making sure that people who read my blog can read my essays without getting bored (and vice versa). Expect my first essay to be on essays, sometime in the next few weeks.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

I occasionally go and do something crazy, something completely unbecoming an engineer. Last semester I took an Creative Writing course with a most wonderful teacher. This semester I’m doing an independent study in art with an equally wonderful teacher. Last night I was up till about midnight getting the grip of Processing — a programming language and environment for creating stunning visuals. It’s a pretty sweet environment and I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible, but boy, was it hard.

All I did last night was recreate an project I’d done a few semesters ago with Lindenmeyer Systems. In some respects, our previous work was a bit misdirected and we should have been building on top of Processing all along. Last night I was reminded firsthand of the importance of using good tools suited for the task at hand. I didn’t write much in terms of code, but I did manage to build up a fair bit of functionality (a much better measure of progress I think). But it’s still not done and I suspect at least an hour or two more of steady work before I get to something that I can show off. This morning as I was trawling in the interwebs I came across this essay written by my creative writing professor and her quotation of “Ars longa, vita brevis” rang out as so true. The art is long and life is so short.

I’m not really an artist, though I like pretty things. I’m a hacker at heart. More important than the actual beauty of the object is the joy I feel in actually creating it. As  a coder, I guess I’m half decent by now. I’d call myself a really really advanced beginner (close to intermediate). But in terms of art, I’m pretty much a greenhorn. What’s more, the art that I’m doing is in code. I thought that would be fun and easy. It’s not easy and it remains to be seen if it’s fun. Though I love writing code and can concentrate better on writing code than on anything else, when it comes to art, I’m a bit lost. It’s been a while since I’ve done any drawing or painting, I prefer using my words to create images in people’s heads. Also without the use of hands and real physical paints and paper, it’s a bit harder to play around. Admittedly, it’s easier to tinker, redo and recreate with computerized tools but there is more of an upfront investment and the learning curve is significantly steeper (at least in the beginning).

In some ways, you could say that I’m painting entirely with mind. It’s liberating: I don’t have to worry about drawing a perfect circle or making sure that the sides of my squares are all the same length, the machine does it for me and I can work at a higher level. At the same time, I can’t just splash some paint on campus and see what it looks like. I have to look up an API reference instead of stroking away extra paint with a brush and I sometimes I have to get my hands dirty debugging (including dealing with Java’s broken type systems). If real artists did this all the time, we’d never progress beyond stick figures. That’s not to denigrate Processing, the people behind it or computational art. The gains in productivity and expression we get from tools like them far away my pain. Don’t mind me. I’m just bitching.

The art is long and life is short. It takes some 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything and it takes continued practice to keep up that level of expertise. And life is short. Sometimes I wish that I could sever all human contact and just sit and write code (or stories or whatever) and the next moment I realize that it’s stupid because it’s meaningless to live completely in isolation. There’s no point in my writing code or making art if no one uses and appreciates what I create. It’s rather ironic that it takes antisocial devotion to a task to create something that others can appreciate. If only our brains could really multitask, things would be so much easier.

Well, that’s enough bitching and moaning for one day. I’m going to get back to my code/art.